Texas State not making full use of environmental service fee
By Nick McCown
The environmental service fee (ESF) at Texas State University, a mandatory $1 per semester for each student, is the lowest of all Texas schools, despite the university being the first in the state to establish this type of fee.
The ESF generates $73,000 each year, which is allocated by the Environmental Service Committee (ESC) on a case-by-case basis to fund various student- or faculty- led environmental projects on campus. ESC meetings are held twice a month to review and consider proposals for funding.
The ESC has funded projects such as reusable water bottle filling stations, a student-run composting organization called Bobcat Blend and outdoor recycling bins, as well as several river cleanups. The committee recently funded an initiative to provide recycling furnishings for university sporting events, according to ESC annual reports.
Water Hydration Station in Evans Liberal Arts Building funded by ESC. Photo Courtesy of Nick McCown
Mark Carter, a Geography professor who has been a voting member of the ESC since its inception, recalled the steps students took to get the fee established.
“We were totally pioneers,” Carter said. “Since we were changing a fee, we had to have a referendum vote among the students to agree to have this fee.”
In 2000, members of the student chapter of the National Association of Environmental Professionals and the Associated Student Government devised a bill to create a student fee to fund environmental projects and education on campus, according to the ESC webpage.
“ Once that was approved, a small group of these students ended up going to Austin and speaking to some of the legislators about the fee, explaining to them what it was all about,” Carter said. “That’s how it became official public policy that we could have that type of fee.”
The Environmental Service Fee Bill was approved by the Legislature in 2003 during the 78th session and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry, setting precedence for Texas schools to have an environmental fee, according to the webpage. The fee went into effect at Texas State fall 2004.
Bobcat Blend compost receptacles in LBJ Student Center funded by ESC. Photo courtesy of Nick McCown.
Texas State was the only school in the state to utilize an environmental fee until 2009 when Austin Community College established its Sustainability Fund. In 2010, University of Texas – Austin, Texas A&M University, University of Texas – San Antonio, University of Texas – El Paso, University of North Texas and Rice University adopted similar fees.
“I think of that old saying about when someone copies what you’re doing that that’s the highest form of flattery,” Carter said. “Well, we were all pleased a couple of years ago when the articles came out about the fact that UT and A&M had both decided to adopt an environmental service fee that was essentially modeled after what we had done here.”
The rates of the recent environmental fees all exceed Texas State’s ESF. The aforementioned schools require between $3 and $5 per semester, according to an online index provided by the Campus Green Fund Collaborative, a non-profit collective of campus coordinators involved in managing environmental funds.
Data drawn from Campus Green Fund Collaborative ‘Green Fund Index.’
According to the data, this means the funds Texas State generates per capita from the ESF are on average 4.25 times less than other schools in the state.
“We have a much lower fee than most universities,” said Nancy Nusbaum, account manager for the ESC. “A lot of them focus on utilities, energy consumption, that sort of thing. Our projects have mostly been on the beautification, education, recycling, composting side.”
“We end up with a budget somewhere around $70,000 per year right now. I think that’s a very reasonable amount of money,” Carter said. “I like to think of the ESC as a stimulus fund. We like to stimulate people to try to think in a sustainable way. That’s why I say more money doesn’t necessarily mean we can do that better.”
Carter said committee members have proposed fee increases in the past, but no change has been made.
ESC Chair Mahtisa Djahangiri said her goal as head of the committee was to get the fee raised.
“We want to be able to say look we have no money. We need more,” Djahangiri said. “We won’t get the fee raised unless we do that.”
“That’s an issue we have talked about over the last year or two, about whether we want to move forward with potentially increasing the fee in the future so we can do more things,” Carter said. “Right at the moment, we have been told by the various people that understand how all those things work that the legislature is not in the mode of adding more fees.”
Nusbaum said this type of increase would not be considered until the committee shows it can expend all of the money generated by the fee. Nusbaum said the ESC has never allocated all the money available since she has been involved.
“The committee has always asked, but I told them until they use up all the money for a couple of years, and they have a long list of requests for funding, the administration will never approve an increase,” Nusbaum said.
“We don’t intend to leave money. It just happens. Sometimes we’ll go weeks without any proposals,” Djahangiri said. “We need more proposals in order to spend all of the money.”
Nusbaum said when the ESC doesn’t spend all of the money it has allocated, the amount falls down into reserves and is available for the next year.
Data drawn from university budget reports.
According to university budget reports, the ESC’s reserve account balance has been at least $56,000 since 2008, with a peak of $94,633 in 2012.
Gwendolyn Hustvedt, temporary ESC faculty voting member, said, “The (ESC’s) idea is simply to get the very best projects completed possible. They’re responsible for the spending of the student fees. They’re representing the students, and they want to see what ends up happening be as effective as possible.”
“I think if were a dollar and (UT is) five, I think we’re doing an amazing job with that dollar and that we could potentially do a lot more,” Hustvedt said.
Djahangiri said, “We want to get the word out every way we can so students know they can come to us and help make their campus better.”
Hustvedt said one way to extend the ESC brand could be to hire students on a continuous basis for website maintenance and communications purposes.
“These students can help raise awareness of the benefits of the sustainability research, education and student activities we do here at Texas State,” Hustvedt said.
Carter agreed staffing positions within the ESC would help with campus awareness and could increase transparency of the committee.
“Record keeping is always a challenge. We have not been consistent over the years in terms of those annual reports,” Carter said. “ If we had a staff member that 10 hours of their time each month was devoted to coming to the ESC meetings, taking the minutes, updating the website and processing all of the proposals, that would be a good thing.”